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Rittenhouse, Jessie B(elle)

RITTENHOUSE, Jessie B(elle)

Born 8 December 1869, Mount Morris, New York; died 28 September 1948, Detroit, Michigan

Daughter of John E. and Mary J. MacArthur Rittenhouse; married Clinton Scollard, 1924

Jessie B. Rittenhouse was the fifth of seven children. Her early years were spent within the circle of a large and prosperous farm family in New York's Genesee Valley. She attended Nunda Academy, New York, and went on to the Genesee Wesleyan Seminary at Lima, New York, where she became absorbed in reading the poetry of Tennyson and Browning. Rittenhouse's schooling was interrupted when financial misfortunes caused the family to move to Cheboygan, Michigan. Having to support herself, Rittenhouse reluctantly chose to teach Latin and English. An aunt, seeing her anguish, suggested she write a poem. Instead, Rittenhouse wrote an article on St. Augustine, Florida, which she sold to the Rochester Union and Advertiser.

Stimulated by her success, Rittenhouse moved to Rochester to work for the Democrat and Chronicle. Between 1905 and 1915, Rittenhouse served as a reviewer for the New York Times Review of Books and the Bookman and lectured widely on modern poetry.

Throughout her career, Rittenhouse was acquainted with many literary figures. In 1901 she helped found the Poetry Society of America, which she served as secretary for 10 years. In 1930 she shared the society's bronze medal for distinguished service with her husband, the poet Clinton Scollard. Rittenhouse's first book of poems, The Door of Dreams, did not appear until 1918. Her fourth and last volume, The Moving Tide: New and Selected Poems (1939), was awarded a gold medal by the National Poetry Center.

After her husband's death in 1932, Rittenhouse moved to Grosse Pointe, Michigan, and wrote her autobiography, My House of Life (1934). The publication of The Younger American Poets in 1904 advanced Rittenhouse into the front rank of literary critics. Keenly aware of the neglect of American poetry, and of young American poets in particular, Rittenhouse focuses her discussions on the work of 18 relatively unknown poets. But it was her "instinct for the popular and salable anthology" that produced The Little Book of Modern Verse in 1913, with new versions in 1919 and 1923, and brought Rittenhouse's name before a wide reading public. Represented in these anthologies are the best-known poets of the earlier part of the 20th century.

Rittenhouse's poems appeared in many periodicals. Focusing on love and loss, with nature and war as secondary themes, the poems were characterized as "slight," "gentle," and "graceful." One critic viewed her work as "more distinguished for grace and perfection than warmth of imagination." Rittenhouse had no illusions about the worth of her own poetry, nor did she, as anthologist, fail to recognize clearly the difficulties of keeping her perspective in regard to her contemporaries. The style of her compilations was innovative in that she abandoned the conventional chronological method of arrangement in favor of one along thematic lines.

Rittenhouse was an important moving force in American poetry in the earlier part of this century-she built morale and established a sense of community among poets and also awakened the reading public to the new directions poetry was taking. As we consider the scope and variety of her contributions, it is safe to say that her services to American poetry have been greatly undervalued.

Other Works:

The Secret Bird (1919). The Lifted Cup (1924).

Bibliography:

Cook, W. H., Our Poets of Today (1918). Davidson, G., In Fealty to Apollo (1950). Untermeyer, L., The New Era in American Poetry (1919). Widdemer, M., Jessie Rittenhouse: A Centenary Memoir-Anthology (1969).

Reference works:

DAB. NAW (1971). TCA. TCAS.

Other references:

Detroit News (29 Sept. 1948). NYT (30 Sept. 1948). Saturday Review (30 Oct. 1948).

—VIRGINIA R. TERRIS

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